Following each game in the 2021 Steelers season, I will be highlighting the play or event in the game that is the turning point in the game. These aren’t meant to be anything earth-shattering, but meant to take a deeper look at how we arrived at the outcome of the game that may be hard to see during the first live watch.
Admittedly, this is one of the toughest articles in this series so far this year. One reason being that the game ended in the dreaded tie, so was there a turning point? While I say yes, it caused me to sift through a comedy of errors from missed QB throws, poor play calling, and fumbles to missed tackles and penalties.
As overtime started I didn’t care how this game ended as long as it did.
This is the worst football game I’ve ever seen.
— Tyler Wise (@TriggeredWise) November 14, 2021
So going through it again was painful, sure, but to me there was one single drive that really stood out to me as the turning point.
With 4:14 left in regulation, the Detroit Lions faced a 3rd & 12 from their own 11. Going against their first-half trend, the Lions got aggressive and tried to take a shot downfield.
The Lions have had:
3rd and 12
3rd and 4
3rd and 10
They've run the ball all three times. Yet to convert. #Steelers
— Alex Kozora (@Alex_Kozora) November 14, 2021
However, the routes downfield never were able to develop, as an inside stunt by Alex Highsmith and a bull rush from Cam Heyward were enough to get the Lions QB’s eyes to drop and take the sack just outside the goal line.
With all that had gone wrong in this game, it felt like, “okay this is it, the Steelers will pull this out.” Winning ugly is never fun, but as Mike Tomlin always says, there are no style points in the NFL.
Following the Detroit punt, Mason Rudolph and the Steelers’ offense jogged onto the field starting the drive in great field position, at the Detroit 48.
With the Lions holding on to two timeouts, and a little over three minutes left in the game, no rush was needed. Just a simple drive, one first down minimum, two will almost guarantee a win. A task that should be simple enough against one of the worst defenses in the entire league.
To start the drive, Matt Canada started with his bread and butter base RPO call. While you would have liked for the Steelers to be able to line up and just run the ball down the throat of the 26th-ranked run defense, Detroit came out ready for the run.
Pre-snap, you can see the safety come down into the box. Rudolph rightfully checks to a pass.
Unfortunately, a Lions defensive lineman gets his arm in the passing lane and is able to bat this one down. While it wasn’t looking to be as big of play as the previous slant missed between Rudolph and Diontae Johnson, this still would have gotten the Steelers ahead of the sticks to start the drive.
On second down the Steelers do indeed go back to the run with a split-zone look.
However, against a seven-man box (eight if you want to count the corner playing directly outside the tight end) there’s hardly any push for the offensive line filled out with 40% backups and 40% rookies.
With 3rd & 7 looming, as a fan, it starts to feel a bit more uneasy starting to realize this golden opportunity may just slip away. Thinking ahead in your mind that this third-down conversion likely makes the Lions start to salt away their timeouts and take us to the two-minute warning already in field goal range. Easy money.
We’ve reached the game’s turning point.
The Steelers come out in 11-personnel, with James Washington and Ray-Ray McCloud to the top of the screen and Pat Freiermuth at the bottom of the screen with Diontae Johnson.
To the top of the screen, the Steelers are running a slant-flat combo. To the bottom of the screen, Freiermuth and Johnson are running a form of smash where Johnson runs a mini-dig and Freiermuth runs the corner.
In a vacuum, one would assume Ruldolph’s first progression is going to be the smash side with the team’s two-best third-down threats running it.
However, the Lions come out showing double A-gap pressure with seven defenders lined up in blitz posture at the line of scrimmage. I assume this is why Rudolph looks over the defense pre-snap and decides to look slant-flat side first, as that will be the quicker-developing route combo in relation to smash.
Not only does the double-A gap blitz look get in Rudolph’s head, but also the rookie center Kendrick Green’s. He snaps the ball high, causing Rudolph to have to jump up with one hand to get it, already throwing him off-rhythm. While Rudolph is corralling the snap, he’s receiving instant pressure right up the gut from one of the linebackers, disallowing a follow-through on his toss to Washington.
Now, look at the bottom of the screen, the Lions had plans to cover Freiermuth with one of the linebackers originally lined up in the A-gap. With him running a corner, this would have been an impossible task. And the rookie tight end knew it.
I’m not saying Rudolph made a bad read here, as I don’t have any idea what the progressions on this play were or if they were changed pre-snap. Secondly, there were simply too many variables working against him with the instant A-gap pressure and high snap.
While it’s well-noted how the Steelers’ offense doesn’t likely differ too much whether it’s Rudolph or Roethlisberger throwing the ball, this was a play I would have liked to see how Big Ben handled it. With his experience and clutch gene for game-winning drives, who knows what would have happened?
Dan Campbell’s Lions played aggressively this entire defensive drive and got the best of this Steelers’ offense full of inexperienced players.
Getting the ball at the opponent’s 48-yard line with three minutes left and only having a three-play, three-yard drive to show for it is inexcusable. Speaking of all of those threes, that’s ALL the Steelers needed. One first down and you likely are able to trot out your placekicker who has been a robot from 50+ all season.
For all the ridiculous things that occurred in overtime, this game should have never even made it there.
What did you feel was the turning point of the game? Leave your thoughts and comments below!